Hua Wang

Talking Leadership with Suzette Malveaux

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Suzette Malveaux is an Associate Professor at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, DC, where she teaches civil procedure, complex litigation, civil rights law, and fair employment law.  She also served as the Director of the Institute for Law and Public Policy.  Suzette provides legal commentary for various news outlets, including CNN, MSNBC, BET News, and Fox News.  

For six years, she served as pro bono counsel on behalf of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot victims.  Prior to academia, she was a class action litigation specialist and appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court and argued before the Eleventh Circuit.  She practiced in Washington for eight years at Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs.  She clerked for Judge Robert L. Carter of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

Suzette received her undergraduate degree from Harvard University and her law degree from New York University School of Law, where she was an Associate Editor of the Law Review, Root-Tilden Scholar, and International Fellow.  Suzette enjoys traveling abroad, biking and running.  She regularly runs marathons and other races for various charities. 

Hua Wang:  What made you decide to go to law school?

Suzette Malveaux:  It took me awhile to get to law school.  I applied and deferred for three years.  I knew I cared about civil rights issues and social justice but I wasn’t sure if law school was the right choice.  My parents were worried and wondered if I would ever go to law school!

However, the experience really helped me.  I was young and I was trying to figure out what my next step was going to be.  I worked on Voices of Freedom, an oral history book on the civil rights movement.  I then went to Zimbabwe and volunteered for a women’s organization.  After that, I directed a program at a community foundation in Boston that supports young people and their service projects. 

It took me awhile to decide to go to law school.  What, in my mind, gave me permission to go was the Root-Tilden Scholarship at NYU.  That was the connection.  The Root program provides scholarships for those students who are dedicated to public interest law.  The program provides not only tuition, but support and access to advocates all over the country who are committed to the same.  Although I was initially headed to Yale, I ended up choosing NYU because of this incredible opportunity.

What did you do after law school?

I first clerked for Judge Robert Carter.  I was particularly interested in working for him because he, along with Thurgood Marshall, argued the Brown v. Board of Education case.  He is an iconic figure in civil rights history.  That experience helped me make the connection between what I was doing and my law degree. 

After my clerkship, I worked for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs for three years.  I worked on fair housing, public accommodations and fair lending discrimination cases.  Thankfully NYU has a really good loan forgiveness program, so the school was paying my loans and enabling me to do this.  I was making very little money at the time.  It was really tough!

I then went to Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll.  There were three of us from the Washington Lawyer’s Committee that joined the class action boutique.  At the time, it was a relatively small firm and we were trying to get a civil rights practice off the ground.  The three of us started the practice.  I worked on high-impact civil rights cases that I loved. 

The appellate work, in particular, was great.  You got to look at both sides.  The highlight of my career was appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court.  That was exciting, meaningful, and serious.  I miss the appellate piece of litigation.  But I don’t miss the nasty, petty arguments that can take place between lawyers during the discovery process—when each side is forced to hand over documents and evidence to the other side.   

What made you decide to become an academic?      

Oh, there are lots of reasons.   One of the reasons I transitioned into academia is that, sometimes, the lifestyle of a litigator is pretty crazy.  You are constantly reacting to court deadlines and pressure.  The hours you work and schedule you keep can be brutal.

In addition, as I mentioned, some of the discovery and interactions with the defense counsel were unnecessarily adversarial.  I don’t mind debating meaningful issues, but I don’t want to argue over silly discovery requests or deal with someone who was hiding the ball or just being nasty for the sake of it. 

There was also the financial component.  Litigation is a business; at some point, there is pressure to bring in clients and generate revenue.  That’s not for everyone.

Another reason why I made the transition from litigation to teaching is because I am a single parent.  I have a seventeen-year-old daughter.  One of the wonderful things about academia is that I have the flexibility and control to manage my life and be an active parent.  I get to participate in her life as much as possible.  I have the freedom and flexibility to go to her soccer games, performances, and plays.  I set my deadlines and my schedule.  Nobody asks, “Where were you?”  I am in class and meetings when I need to be, but I also get to take my work wherever I need to go.  Don’t get me wrong—it’s a lot of hard work!  There’s no question, I work as hard as I did when I was a lawyer.  But, academia also gives me time with my daughter—which I treasure.

For me, academic work is also more satisfying because it is more intellectual.  When you are in the litigation trenches, it is important work but, as an advocate, you are taking one side.    Sometimes I wanted to take more time to grapple with the bigger picture.  As a litigator, you don’t have that luxury.  Today, it is very rewarding to take a step back and thoughtfully examine both sides of an issue. 

How is the academic lifestyle?

I love my job.  I teach civil procedure, civil rights, complex litigation, and employment law-- all things I had my hands in as a lawyer.  I also write in these areas.  I get to control the message.  I get to decide what I am going to write about, what I care about, what I need to focus on, what position I want to take.  It is not because a client wants me to go in that direction. 

Nobody drives the bus but me.  I really like being my own boss, within the confines of working for a university.  I have this freedom and control that I didn’t have before.  It’s an awesome power and responsibility.

Did you have a defined career plan?

I wish I could say that there was a master plan, but I don’t think so.  In the back of my mind, I always thought I would enjoy teaching.  My experiences helped me figure that out.  I was a lawyer for eight years, and now I have been a professor for eight years.  Before, I thought of myself as a lawyer who happened to be teaching.  Now I am a professor who happened to be a lawyer.  My identity is kind of schizophrenic these days!  I appreciate the importance of both.

I go off in one direction, and, if it is not quite working, I look at what would be a better fit for me, as a parent and as somebody who enjoys writing, thinking, and promoting justice. This means I may have multiple careers.  Lawyer.  Professor.  Commentator.  Each is a different way of getting at the core value of seeking justice and wanting to serve.  That is the consistent theme for me. 

And each career decision is a compromise, depending on the phase of life.  For me, I was willing to take a hit financially by leaving a law firm, so I could spend more time being present for my daughter.  But now she is going off to college in a year.  Wow!  I am getting old!  So I’m going to be an empty nester.  I’m starting to  think, what will be my next move?  What can I afford to do now?  What’s on my to-do list?  My bucket list?! 

I’ve started doing some legal commentary.  I started with the Art Fennell Reports at a regional TV station.  Every week I reported on Supreme Court cases.  It was a lot of fun and great experience.  Since then I’ve provided commentary for CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and BET.   And recently, I’ve been giving interviews to the print media, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and the Congressional Quarterly.  It’s been amazing!

I can’t say I planned out my entire career.  Hopefully, if you listen to your heart and trust your instincts, you will go in the right direction for where you are supposed to be at that time. 

Do you have mentors?

My mentors have changed over time.  I have had a mix of male and female mentors, of different races and ages.  They are people who have been extremely helpful and looked out for me.  I really appreciate it when an organization or a person offers training or guidance.  It is a real treasure to find someone who is willing to be honest with me, and tell me my strengths and weaknesses and what I need to work on.  How big do you want to dream?  How big are your goals?  It’s great to have people to push you (lovingly) beyond your comfort zone, your fear. 

It is not always easy to find mentors.  One of the things I’ve learned is that mentors come in unexpected ways and unexpected packages.  They don’t necessarily have to be women or minorities.  It could be somebody who doesn’t share your political views.  They come in all forms.  You have to be open to that.  Sometimes unexpected places and situations will reveal someone who will help you.  Consequently, my mentors have been very diverse.  If you can find that early on, that is so important.

Mentors know important things that may not be obvious.  How do you know what it takes to be a law professor?  What do you do?  Serve on the Law Review?  Clerk for a judge?  Research for a professor?  There is a well-trod path that sometimes we miss out on because we don’t know about it.  This is especially true if our family doesn’t have the particular background or experience to share with us.   

Some of my peers feel that older women might not want to mentor them.  What are your thoughts?

It is tough.  What may be happening is that experienced women might feel they don’t have the time to mentor.  They may have forged ahead and had to be very myopic to get there.  In doing so, mentoring may have escaped them as a priority.  I would venture to say that a lot of very successful women would be open to mentoring if asked.  Sometimes all it takes is being asked.

Some women have the sense that there is only room for one of us at the top.  We need to support each other and use competition to push each other, rather destroy one another.  Men, I think, use competition in a healthier way.  They’re able to be friends at the end of the day, even after they’ve fought each other hard during business hours.

Is the legal profession a welcoming place for women?

The legal profession is a predominately white male profession.  At the plaintiff’s firm, even though we did civil rights work, for years I was the only minority lawyer.  At depositions, I was often the only female, the only minority and the youngest person in the room.  But for the court reporter, I was the only woman.  But for my client, I was the only racial minority.  Other than that, the entire room would be filled with older white men.  It was something I had to adjust to. 

I would turn the situation on its head.  Some of the opposing counsel in the room would lower their guard, change their expectations.  I had the strategic advantage of surprise on my side!  When I opened my mouth, they realized, “Oh my god!”  They underestimated what they were dealing with. 

Those stereotypes and first impressions are real.  I am not the client.  I am not the court reporter.  I am not the paralegal.  I am the lawyer.  To have people overcome that initial impression of who I am and where I fit into the structure, I have to prove myself—constantly.  That can be a burden.  It takes work to get people beyond stereotypes and traditional expectations about what a lawyer traditionally looks like. 

It is also true for academia, although that is changing over time.  When I first started teaching, the faculty was roughly only one third female.  And at my current job, there are very few minority faculty. 

When I first started teaching as a young female law professor, there were always a few young guys in the class that initially had a hard time seeing me as an authority figure.  That was not something they could readily accept.  They had to overcome some perceptions in their mind of what a professor is supposed to look like.  They did not expect someone who was young, female, and, in their opinion, attractive to be their law professor.  They might have been more comfortable meeting me in a bar!  But instead, they realized, “Oh my god, this is the professor!”  I had to prove myself.

It is important to be yourself and to be strong, to be everything you can be.  Know that you are changing the environment.  In some ways you are a pioneer for future generations.

Do you think being female, minority, and young made you act differently? 

Yes.  I am conscious of the differences.  The impact is that it makes me work harder and insist on a high level of achievement.  I feel I am a representative to some degree, which is an awesome privilege, but also a responsibility.  I don’t want to promote any stereotypes or give anyone any reason to deny me.  I try to go above and beyond.  If I was in the majority, I might be more of a ”shoot from the hip” kind of person.  I might take things for granted and be more relaxed.  I push the edge because I don’t think I can afford not to. 

Being a young, female minority is also an asset.  I find that, whatever environment I am in, I make friends with the support staff, security guards, paralegals, and the cleaning crew—places where I find other minorities like myself.  Everyone looks out for me!  I feel very comfortable in that world.  It is familiar and safe. 

Can you tell me more about your family? 

My family has been very supportive.  I also come from a family that has very high expectations!  There is a lot of emphasis on doing your best and working hard. 

My parents are very much like that.  My dad is from a very small town in Louisiana.  He has come really far.  He has been a doctor, a dean of a medical school and now he is running a department at a foundation.  He has always emphasized greatness through example.

My mom was an excellent first grade and Head Start teacher for twenty-five years and is now retired.  She is very loving and 100% supportive.  She has always believed in us.  Everyone who knows my mom can’t help but fall in love with her; she makes you feel good about yourself whenever you’re in her presence.  You have to have at least one person who believes in you and pushes you.  Otherwise it is easy to doubt yourself.  My mom also taught my sister and me the importance of being independent women, of being able to count on ourselves.

My parents have done whatever they could to provide whatever opportunities and resources for my sister, my brothers, and myself.  They’ve made tremendous sacrifices.

What is something you wished I had asked?

How do you maintain work-life balance?  That is a tough question.  How can you be a successful professional, achieve personal goals, and at the same time try to be a rock star mom? 

You don’t do it by yourself.  You can’t do it alone.  What kills me are those magazines that showcase women who have done it all.  They have a ton of kids and are at the top of their game professionally, and they make it seem as if they did it by all by themselves!  It is very deceiving. 

My family and dear friends help me.  It is hard, if not impossible, to do everything well all at once.  You take turns.  Sometimes you are a great parent and other times you are a great lawyer.  But being both at the same time is really tough.  Sometimes one of your roles takes a hit.  You have to wrap your mind around it and forgive yourself.  Women are set up to believe that they should do all these things well and all at the same time.  But I think we need to give ourselves a little more grace.  We’re worthy just the way we are.

Thank you for sharing your experiences!  Your stories yielded some interesting insights on making career choices, taking risks, and defining success on your own terms. 

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